Ron Lindsay wrote a post about freedom of expression and critical inquiry a couple of days ago, prompted mostly by the controversy over Ben Radford’s post (this is getting too meta already – so often the case) about pink toys and sexism.
The cornerstone of our mission is freedom of expression and critical inquiry. We see freedom of expression and critical inquiry as indispensable tools for arriving at an accurate understanding of just about any issue of importance, including, but not limited to, the truth of religious or fringe science claims.
There is a trope out there (this is nothing to do with Ron Lindsay) that goes something like: the “radical feminism” of a subset of atheists is a disgrace in people who claim to value critical inquiry and free thinking.
I think that’s wrong but not obviously wrong – or to put it another way, there’s some truth in that but it can’t and shouldn’t be helped. (Well, I don’t think there’s some truth in the claim that it’s “a disgrace,” but the claim isn’t always made in those terms. I think there’s some truth in the claim that there’s a tension or a difficulty.)
The trouble is, there are two categories in play here: the epistemic and the political. The two are inherently in at least potential conflict…and I don’t think that can be helped; I think all we can do is be aware of the tension, be honest about it, point it out if others seem to be missing it, and the like. I don’t think we can do away with it.
Free inquiry is one kind of thing, and commitment to equality is another.
We keep finding ourselves in slow motion train wrecks because of this fact. Greta posts something uncontroversial about a new podcast by Rebecca Watson on Facebook and promptly gets a slew of hostile comments; she posts about the absurdity of that, and promptly gets more hostile comments. Specifically, she gets comments from a guy who says he is just “disagreeing” with her…
And that’s where the wheels come off. Maybe he is. But given all the background noise, that claim can be hard to believe at this point – and that’s a distortion. It’s a kind of bias. But that doesn’t make it false! Weird, isn’t it. Both can be true: we (we feminist atheists) are acting like trigger-happy paranoiacs, and the people who claim to be just “disagreeing” are actually expressing hostility to the idea that women should be treated as equals. It could be true that we’re right to act like trigger-happy paranoiacs, because what we think about the people who are “disagreeing” with us in a certain way is accurate, yet at the same time there we are acting like trigger-happy paranoiacs, which can’t be good for our critical thinking skills.
But it can’t be helped. It can be, I think, compensated for, but it can’t be just ended. That’s because that’s how it is with discussions that have a bearing on equality. They tend to mix the empirical and the political. Think the Bell Curve. Think Larry Summers. Think James Watson.
But the problem with this of course is that it creates taboos, and in free inquiry one doesn’t want taboos, to put it mildly. In political commitments, however, one does (in a sense).
These two things don’t go together well.
To be continued.